Every iconic skyline has the buildings that define it. For New York, it’s skyscrapers like the Chrysler Building. In London, the towering figure of Big Ben looms greatly, while the Paris skyline is unthinkable without the Eiffel Tower.
The single building that has captured the imagination for longer than any other in the Antipodes is the Sydney Opera House. Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, the arts venue is looking back on half a century as an indelible part of Sydney Harbour’s landscape.
In the 1950s, Australia’s biggest city had a far more barren skyline. An open competition to design the new opera house was entered by more than 200 budding architects from across the world.
Danish architect Jørn Utzon was victorious in 1957 with his distinctive shell design.
“In it, the judges could see the innovative design, the response to the setting on the beautiful Sydney harbour, and really what this place could be, which is a sculpture, an artwork in itself, to celebrate and house the performing arts,” explains Sydney Opera House Heritage Manager Laura Matarese.
Construction began in 1959 with an initial expected finish date of 1963 and a budget of A$7 million. It would take over a decade more before the building was officially opened by Queen Elizabeth II in 1973. By then, costs had risen to A$102 million, offset by funding from the Australian lottery.
Utzon died in 2008, aged 90.
The 70-year-old Peter Tucker recalls the time vividly. He started working at the Sydney Opera House in 1971, two years before the official opening.
On his first day of work, Tucker was 19, fresh out of school and about to become a father. At the time, you could lose your job if you arrived late, however serious your excuse was.
“I got up in the morning, and my wife went into labour, so I had to rush my wife off to hospital, at Paddington hospital, then I made my way down here and I commenced work as a builder’s labourer,” says Tucker, who is now operations supervisor of the site.
“First day here was good, they introduced me to a jackhammer, and that’s where I stayed for the first six months in the drama theatre. It was really, really good. In the afternoon, I went and saw my wife, and I had a lovely son,” he reminisces.
Tucker has stayed at the Opera House all these years, the last person still employed at the venue who also worked on the building site.
He also got to shake Queen Elizabeth II’s hand in 2006 when she opened the Colonnade, an external loggia on the west of the building.
“When I was working here, it was all just scaffold, and there was a big massive safety net that if anybody fell, they were caught in the safety net, and then all of a sudden it’s all gone, and then there’s musicians on stage, and they’re playing, and you’re saying ‘how beautiful is this coming out’ you know, I’d never heard a full orchestra before, but, wow, that was very impressive,” says Tucker.
In the past 50 years, the Sydney Opera House has been home to various resident companies, including the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, the Sydney Theatre Company, Opera Australia, the Australian Ballet, Bangarra Dance Theatre and more.
“The numbers are amazing. It's 118,000, at last count, performances have happened in the Opera House and 63 million seats have been sold. So, that’s an extraordinary number of people who had an experience here,” says Fiona Winning, director of programming, Sydney Opera House.
In its 50 years of existence, the Opera has welcomed many guests.
Arnold Schwarzenegger won his last Mr Olympia crown here in 1980, Pope John Paul II addressed a massive crowd in 1987 and in 1990 the recently freed Nelson Mandela spoke to 40,000 people amassed on the outside steps.
For the first time ever, the Opera had to close in March 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the meantime, a major refurbishment of the Concert Hall was underway.
Last July, the Hall reopened with a much richer and clearer sound, according to musicians.
The stage has also been dropped, which means audience members in the front rows don’t have to look up anymore.
A lesser-known and more intimate room is the Utzon room, the smallest performance space in the Opera House.
Utzon designed it himself. The room looks out to the water, and a wall is covered by a tapestry he commissioned.
That room has welcomed all sorts of events, from chamber music to, more surprisingly, punk bands.
In 2007, the Opera was included on UNESCO's Heritage List. To mark this year’s 50th anniversary, about 250 performances, events and experiences showcased by Australian and international artists are organised. On the birthday weekend, 21-22 October, an open house will take place for everyone to visit.